Winter Notes Seven: Edgelands

I wrote this, or started to, a couple of weeks ago as COVID-19 approached, but before home-schooling, before lock-down. As the scale of the crisis unfurled on the news I went on a massively LONG walk, I couldn’t stop my feet from moving ever forward, along the riverbank, over muddy fields and to the medieval ditch, and back. Walking to clear my mind (which resembled a pin-ball machine) and tire myself out – I achieved only one of those things.

Here are my words; written three or so weeks ago, though it seems like years, so still titled Winter Notes. They are in celebration of the local wander to the not quite countryside on many of our doorsteps.

There is a temptation to believe that exploration requires a long trip to a far away place, that you need to drive to the mountains or the coast, kitted up and carrying maps in order to go on A Walk. Of course there is a place for this, I currently have a huge craving for a few miles of bracing sea air on the South West Coast path, or a challenging hike up something Snowdonian. In my imaginary life I’d just pack up the camper van and GO (everything is so much easier in my imaginary life!). Often I find myself up first on a Saturday with itchy feet and with only and hour or two to spare before the day properly begins, or noticing the clouds suddenly break at five o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon and needing to get out and walk.

Writer Tanya Shadrick published a poem/guide called “Exercises for A Nature Writer” (see her pinned tweet here) which I find hugely inspiring. It finishes “Inspect the edge lands daily, make holes in every fence for life to slip through”. I realised recently that even when I lived in London, in the midst of my hectic 1990s Bridget Jones style life, I’d walk. Hungover head-clearing walks in the parks. On days off — especially Sundays — I’d go for mammoth walks from Hoxton across The City visiting cemeteries and hanging about in the green spaces of the Barbican.

Now I wonder if I was ‘inspecting the edgelands’ unconsciously. It’s been years since those sanity-saving Sunday walks but when I read Rob Cowen’s “Common Ground” I immediately recognised what he was doing. Recently I’ve made a more conscious decision to turn my gaze to the nearby.

We live on the edge of the Berkshire Downs; a drive takes me to an ancient Hillfort or two, and The Ridgeway, in the other direction up into the Chilterns. But if I don’t want to get in the car (or on my bike) then I have a few favourite routes. One of these is across the busy road to the old concrete BMX park. Here begins one of my usual routes, from home to the bird lake, handily easily to lengthen or shorten as time, weather or energy levels demand, and if you were dropped into this walk early on a Sunday morning you might imagine yourself in the wilds of Wiltshire. However, it’s far from remote. Lorries full of gravel, concrete and scaffolding rumble by, the tarmac track is broken from the weight of them. There’s often a need to step to the side for these huge vehicles, and for vans carrying car parts and tyres. This is edge land, fields and paddocks surrounded by housing estates, industrial units and a couple of busy roads.

The boundary of the field is of Scots pine and chestnut trees, of elders, brambles and barbed wire. The trees look magnificent at all times of the year; the shape of branches — especially the sculptural shape of the pine —A against a pale blue sky, or a blazing late winter sunset are enchanting. A chestnut’s green leaves and candles alongside the froth of elderflowers a glorious sight in early summer. The view across the field beyond the line of trees is of a farmhouse comfortably nestled in its space. There is a lot of space here, between the buildings and businesses.

I’ve walked in this landscape in rain, sun and snow for over a decade now and yet it never bores me. I often stop alongside a mysterious ramshackle yard containing huge piles of rubble, watch and listen to the birds in the trees. Taking photograph as the year turns I see frost, sometimes snow, buds, leaflets, flowers, fruits. The light changes from the blue cold of winter to summer haze, and with it the shadow of the pylon across the opposite field. Sunset is behind huge oak trees in the paddock of the farmhouse glimpsed earlier. I’ve learned over the years to slow down, see the seasonal changes in this small pocket of landscape in the gaps between the hedges, and between my visits.

For more edge lands Rob Cowen‘s ‘Common Ground‘ is an excellent read.

Tanya Shadrick’s inspiring website is here.

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